#satire

I’m very much enjoying the wonderfully written posts on Medium by Jenn Schiffer, which lead me to a bunch of related little thoughts.

To give you a flavour, here’s a snippet from her most recent post, Why I’m Breaking Up with jQuery and Getting Back Together with PHP:

This developer’s choice (me, I’m talking about me, I’m a web developer) was to port all of our jQuery code base into PHP. This was simpler than one would expect, as PHP is basically like Node except wrapped in question marks:

// jquery syntax
$someVariable.click(someFunction);

// php syntax
<?php $someVariable.click(someFunction); ?>

There are two more spaces in the syntax, which means our server side code will never be quite as fast as the client side, but the beauty of server side is that its errors never show in browser developer tools consoles.

If the console has no errors, that means there are no errors in your code.

At the risk of tediously stamping the humour to death, let’s tediously stamp the humour to death by thinking how people might read this. There are three broad positions.

First, if you know a bit about web development, and can recognise this as satirical nonsense you may find this hilarious. (You might not, but that’s humour for you.) It plays with the over-enthusiasm and carefree inaccuracies found in the writing of someone who doesn’t know enough to write what they’re writing.

Second, if you know something about web development but come to these posts fresh you might not realise it’s satirical nonsense. You might simply read it as inaccurate nonsense, of which there’s plenty on the web. The King Of Front End Web Development, Jeffrey Zeldman, was initially taken in by one of Schiffer’s posts, describing it as “misinformation”.

Finally, if you know nothing about web development this post is going to be just as impenetrable as a serious piece about programming and I guess it’s unlikely you’d realise it was either inaccurate or humorous.

That last group is quite interesting — I love jokes that are so focused they mean nothing to people outside a specific audience. Zeldman again, having “got” the joke: “I don’t imagine there’s a huge market for front-end-development-themed satire.” No, but the smaller the audience, the more narrow the references, and the funnier the joke is for those in the know.

However, the middle group, the Zeldmans who know enough to get the joke but don’t initially see it, are the most interesting. I guess this is what makes satire satire: it could be true… maybe? It’s why some people see headlines from The Onion and think they’re real and it’s how politicians were taken in by Brass Eye’s tales of the terrifying new drug Cake.

While Brass Eye was intentionally trying to fool those in power, the programmes themselves, along with the articles by The Onion and Jenn Schiffer, aren’t trying to fool people. It’s only satire if enough viewers and readers can tell it’s satire. But the people who are taken in provide extra humour for those of us in the know; we get to feel superior and laugh at how seriously they take things. They’ll post comments pointing out inaccuracies in the nonsense and even dourly suggest the articles should be deleted so they don’t fool anyone else.

Medium, where Jenn Schiffer writes her posts, are ideal for this kind of satire. Articles on Medium seem to carry an authority that posts on disparate weblogs don’t. Some Medium articles are commissioned, which creates a vague smell of “professional publishing” that wafts across the whole site. Suddenly the most batshit free-market nonsense acquires an aura of respectability in this neutrally-themed arena that it wouldn’t on a site that was known solely for batshit free-market nonsense. (I pick on batshit free-market nonsense because after following links to quite a bit of it on Medium I currently, probably unfairly, associate the site with it.)

I’m hoping there’s more satire on Medium, making the most of this veneer of authority. This is satire (I assume; it’s written by Twategy) but this isn’t. I think. It appears legitimate but uses the kind of language that anyone writing a satirical piece along the same lines would use (“Yesterday I executed a growth hack…”) and it’s the kind of horrible internet marketing bollocks that deserves satire.

It would be possible to take this fake authority a stage further. Create a website that publishes news. It should look like a real news website, with all the styling and language and cross-promotional widgets that make real news websites such a mess. Post enough accurate news stories that it seems entirely legitimate. Completely straight-faced. Obviously this requires work and/or money. But then, every so often, even once a day, slip in an entirely inaccurate article. I don’t really know how or why. Should it be really over the top and ridiculous, aiming for laughs? Should it be biting Onion-style satire? Should it simply report made-up events to cause some kind of trouble? I’m not sure. But playing with that fake authority, and playing with the group of people who can’t distinguish the satire from the not-satire, would be interesting.

UPDATE, later the same day:

Ezequiel Bruni, who first alerted Jeffrey Zeldman to Jenn Schiffer’s post of “misinformation” has published a piece about his error, and what happened next (on Medium, of course). He lists three mistakes he made. Well, basically two mistakes, the first being not reading the article properly and the other:

I automatically assumed, based on where the article had been posted, and prior experience, that the author was in earnest. I allowed the “sacred ground” of Medium to lull me into a false sense of security. I just assumed that everyone who writes here is trying to make a name for themselves as a great thinker.

If a site gives the impression that everyone writing for it wants to seem like “a great thinker”, i.e., is pompous and self-important, that’s fertile ground for satire.